LotRO: Life On the Legendary Server

I’ve never gotten into the whole progression server thing. I guess you could count Old School RuneScape, which is an odd sort of progression server that progresses in a different direction than the original game did. But other than that, I don’t usually sit around thinking “Man, I miss the days before this game had so many quality of life improvements.” But one game that I’ve always regretted not getting into earlier is Lord of the Rings Online. I’ve always been way behind the pack in LotRO, and its player base isn’t quite big enough that it has a critical mass of people playing low-to-mid levels that I can group with. So I’m basically stuck playing solo until I reach cap, and I always get burned out before I do. That’s why I was excited by the idea of the LotRO Legendary Server. It’s kind of a cheap version of a progression server; all of the current updates, class mechanics, and newer classes/race are there, but expansion levels will be unlocked every four months. I’m pretty happy with that setup, though I do miss skirmishes and all of the easy cosmetics that come with them.

A lot of people are asking what the point of this server is and who this server is for. It’s true, there’s not a ton here you couldn’t just do by just rolling up a new character on a new server and not doing anything to help yourself out. Some people are already doing that. But for me, this is an excuse for a larger community to reroll and progress at the same time. It’s for people like me who didn’t play the game at launch and want to play level 50 or 60 dungeons as they were designed, and not by getting carried by people twice the level it was designed for.

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I thought the announcement of the launch date was rather sudden. I was expecting it to pop up late this month or maybe next month, and so when the date was announced less than a week before the launch, I had already spent all of my gaming budget. The logical half of my brain told me that I had already spent my budget on the special edition of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and that I shouldn’t overspend, and, besides, next month I’ll be playing the crap out of the new Super Smash Bros. and probably won’t even make it to cap anyway. The fun half of my brain said that I’ve been wanting an excuse to get back into LotRO, this is probably the last opportunity I’ll have to be part of a community leveling experience in this game. The day may come when I listen to the logical half of my brain when it comes to LotRO, but it is not this day.

So a new hobbit warden named Isnan was born. I’ve always wanted to level a warden, as it seems like a really fun and rewarding class, but it’s so complex that I know I won’t know what I’m doing if I don’t devote myself to it for a while, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I’ve been having a blast so far. There are so many people in The Shire and Bree-Land! I love it! I spent pretty much the whole weekend in Middle-Earth, which is something that I very much needed. I thought the 40% slower pace of questing would be annoying, but at least a low levels, I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve still had plenty of XP to get through the whole Shire without having to farm. Well, I did some actual farming because I’m a cook, but not the “mindlessly killing mobs for XP” kind. I love the flow of the hobbit story, starting out wandering around the shire, delivering mail and pies and keeping bears away from honey. Best of all, the way the game transitions you back to the reality of the threats from Mordor is that a hobbit thinks she’s seen the ghost of Golfimbul (for whom, as everyone knows, the game of golf is named), and in the process of investigating you wind up stopping a legit goblin invasion force. The rangers, of course, are having none of that, and you end up running the message to Strider in Bree and getting mixed up in this whole quest to save the world. I’m amazed all over again with what a great job Turbine/Standing Stone has done adapting the world of The Lord of the Rings to game form and weaving the player into the story without making them Frodo Jr.

I’ll see you around the Arnor server! Feel free to PM Isnan and say hullo!


What Being A Developer Has Taught Me About Games

I’m a professional programmer by day and an indie game developer hobbyist by night. As far as the game dev part goes, I’m really bad at finishing what I start, so, while I get a lot of enjoyment out of the process, I don’t really have a whole lot to show for it, other than games like this one I made for a game jam (a challenge to make a complete game in just 48 hours with a topic that isn’t revealed until you start) this past weekend, and if you could go there and vote honestly about it I’d really appreciate it! I thought I’d share how working on games, even on small, one-to-five person teams, and being a professional programmer working in similarly small teams, has taught me a lot about games and how they are made.

The Last 10% of a Project Takes 90% of the Time
A lot of people seem to think this is a copout–it’s really unintuitive, even to those of us who do this for a living–but it’s absolutely true. The tail end of a project is where all kinds of bugs an inefficiencies rear their ugly heads, and you spend a lot of time refactoring, or changing the internals of the way a piece of code works without changing what it does. It’s unexciting and time consuming. Plus, code can be like playing Jenga; you remove one piece and put it somewhere else, and everything collapses.
That said, this does not excuse crunch practices. Crunch always means your project manager didn’t do his or her job right. There has been a lot of talk going on about this lately, most recently with Rockstar bizarrely bragging about it, unbidden, to the press, then trying to backpedal. A good project manager knows to bake enough time into their estimates for that last 10%. If your people are working 100 hours a week on a game, that’s not something to brag about, that means you’re doing it wrong. There are people out there who are willing to do that just so they can put on their resume that they worked on Read Dead Redemption 2 or whatever, but I can’t imagine a world in which that’s worth it, and most devs who have been there will agree. There are companies out there making games, even AAA games, that don’t force this kind of thing. On top of that, a good many studies have shown that crunch actually reduces productivity in the long run because it introduces a lot of mistakes that would have been caught if your employees weren’t exhausted.

Everything is More Complex Than You Think
I can’t tell you how often I’ve started a project and thought, “This will be easy! I’ll be done in a couple days!” And after a few hours, after realizing all of the complicating factors, it’s more like couple of weeks. Sure, sometimes the reverse happens–we asked ourselves several times this weekend if we were going to finish our game jam entry, and we ended up completing it with several hours to spare–but that seems less common. My point is, give developers some slack when things get delayed. Time estimates are hard.

More Money/More People Not Equal A Better/Faster Project
I remember my Computer Science professor talking in one of our project management classes about a book called the Mythical Man-Month. The idea is that managers (especially non-technical ones) think that if a single developer can get a project done in six months, then two developers can finish it in three months, six developers finish it in one month, and 24 developers finish it in a week. Sadly, that’s just not how it works in software development. Sure, two developers might be able to cut the project time nearly in half, but the more people you add to the project, the more you get bogged down in meetings and communication and conflicting ideas and styles. Sometimes a small, agile team of quality developers who work well together can do way more than a big-budget team that’s bloated and inefficient. I’ve seen this even on two-man teams; at a previous job I came in one morning and found code that I had spent three days writing gutted and rewritten in a different way without explanation just because the other developer had stylistic differences. I think this is a large part of why Wildstar ultimately failed; the communication element just wasn’t there, and it took too much to get fixes and changes in place. This isn’t an easy issue to fix, but it’s a huge one!

Be Nice To Devs
Generally, the things you don’t like about a game aren’t the individual developer’s fault (or at least not just their fault), and the things that are actually broken will get fixed faster if you’re nice than if you’re a jerk (mainly because it causes stress which lowers productivity, but sometimes we just bump things down on the priory list because the affected user was a jerk).

What Game Devs Accomplish Is Really Impressive
Knowing what goes into just the small games I’ve made has given me a deeper appreciation for what professional game devs put into their games. I can’t even get two computers talking to each other over the network right, I can only imagine trying to get thousands of computers talking to one server and staying in sync. And it’s not just developers; there are musicians, sound designers, voice actors, graphical artists (both 2D and 3D), mocap actors, testers (not as fun as you’d think), network engineers, database administrators, and a whole list of other jobs I can’t do that go into making a professional game. And everything has to fall into place at once, just so Stuga can remind you how long she’s been looking for you.

WoW Really Needs To Work On First Impressions

I recently pondered if World of Warcraft was worth starting in 2018. I even sent a cut-down version of that post to the Massively OP podcast to get their opinions on the subject. Finally, I decided to give the free-up-to-20 experience a try. I had done this a while back and wasn’t impressed, but it was with a friend who was rather disenchanted with everything that had changed in his absence, so maybe I just needed to get to know the game on my own?

Sadly, my original impression was confirmed; the low-level game is just kind of terrible. I chose the monk because it sounded interesting to me (and it’s one of the newer classes, so probably a more refined design, right?), I’m dumped into the world with a single skill on my bar, which is a Chi builder that costs slowly-regenerating power to use–that’s fine, I’m comfortable with builder-and-spender class designs–but I’m basically just stuck auto-attacking until my power bar refills, when I can do another low-damage builder skill with nothing to spend it on. That’s… probably just for level 1, right? I’ll get enough skills for a basic rotation in the next couple of levels? Well, at level 3 I get my first spender. Still not enough to build and spend without auto attacking in between. Well, surely this will be remedied soon. So at level five I get… a roll? It literally just makes you roll forward, dealing no damage, and it doesn’t even stop at a target for use as a gap closer. I’m sure there are times when this comes in handy. I can’t imagine what they are, other than getting places slightly faster before I get a mount, but I’m sure it has a purpose. But why in in world (of Warcraft) wouldn’t you wait to give me this until I actually have enough attack skills that I’m not standing around waiting on resource blocks? When I hit level 8 and was handed, not another builder, not another damage spender, but a heal skill, I ragequit.

I don’t see a way in which this isn’t simply poor low-level class design. This is Blizzard for goodness sake! I thought they invented polish and accessibility in MMOs. I mean, they did invent polish and accessibility in MMOs; I played just enough EverQuest and other older MMOs to know that. But this is 2018 and in every MMO I jump into, I have three to four skills on my hotbar by the time I’m level 3, and I don’t have to feel like I’m doing RuneScape combat. I can’t fathom, with all of the class revisions they’ve done over the years–after all is the post-Cataclysm revised leveling experience–that they haven’t made this better. Are they just trying to discourage alting by making the early game experience so bad you only want to do it once? I can’t imagine why a game would do this; alting makes for better players who stick around longer.

My friends who play WoW assure me that this is a good thing. That by the time you get a new skill you really know that last skill. But I feel like I learned all I needed to know by reading the tooltip. Yeah, if they dumped three or four hotbars full of stuff on me all at once (as I’m sure they do when you level boost), it would be overwhelming. But I think I could handle two or three more at the very beginning to get a decent feel for how the class plays. I don’t mean to mock them too much; their main complaint with Guild Wars 2 was that, once you get your relevant slot skills, leveling adds nothing new to your character until you start working on elite specs (and if you don’t like the elite specs for your class, you’re pretty much done progressing). I think that’s a legitimate complaint. But there’s a middle ground that seems to be missing in WoW.

I’m going to try rolling another class–probably a druid or a shaman–and stick with it for another week or so, but if those classes have equally terrible early games, Blizzard probably still isn’t getting any of my money on this one. I really don’t want to be this negative about a game that is so influential and widely beloved, and, going in, I honestly didn’t expect to be. I’m quite sure the game gets worlds better if I just stick with it just a bit longer, but I can muster no motivation to do so.
You really need to work on your first impressions, Blizzard.

A Look Back At Five Years Of Occasional Hero

I’ve now been running this blog for over five years. I had to go back and verify that I didn’t read that wrong when it showed up on my calendar the other day. It’s funny, all through school, I always said that I didn’t like writing. Then, my senior year of college I took a class in blogging (it was a Comm Arts class called “Electronic Publishing,” but really it should have been called “start a WordPress blog and read about basic HTML without actually using it”) because it sounded like easy credits for a senior Computer Science major. We were assigned to start a WordPress site and write about something that interested us twice a week, so I started a site where I reviewed retro games and talked about their impact on modern games. That site didn’t continue after the class was over, but it taught me that there was a form of writing that I actually kind of liked! After things settled down a little after college, I started this blog to talk about MMOs as a part of the Newbie Blogger Initiative under the terribly awkward and wordy title “Part Time Core Gamer” (I couldn’t think of anything catchy, so I guess I went for descriptive?). I started out with the goal of posting twice a week, but that was quickly adjusted to once a week, with permission not to guilt myself if I didn’t meet that expectation. I think that’s why I’ve lasted this long; it’s not an obligation for me. If I can’t think of anything to write about, I just don’t. It’s not a great way to grow a super popular, high traffic blog, but I’m not sure that’s really an attainable goal in 2018. This is just a side hobby of my gaming hobby.

A lot has happened in the last five years. For instance, my blog is the first place where I referred to this girl that I was getting to know as my “girlfriend” even though we hadn’t made it “official” or anything, mainly because “girlfriend” was easier to write than “this cute girl I know that I’ve been hanging out with that might be my girlfriend? I think? I mean, if she wants to?” I had my blog linked on my personal Facebook at the time, and she stumbled upon it and realized that I was talking about her. She must have been ok with it, because she is now my wife. While life hasn’t always been great over the last five years, she always is. I’m also proud of the fact that she has gone from rarely playing games on her PlayStation when we first met to now playing Elder Scrolls Online more than I do, with way higher crafting levels.

I’ve come and gone to a lot of different MMOs in five years. Flipping casually through my posts, I went from being lukewarm about Guild Wars 2 to it being my main game for several years, now back to being a little lukewarm on it again. More recently, I’ve gone from being lukewarm on Elder Scrolls Online to it being my main game, so take that as you will. I posted a lot about Marvel Heroes and WildStar, and more recently about how we lost them. I’ve posted intermittently about Star Wars The Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online and a number of other titles, and I’d really like to go back to those games, but not right now. I just hope they’re all there when I want to go back.

It seems like, more often than not, the posts I’m really proud of don’t get a ton of hits, but the posts I just threw together on my lunch break blow up. I know I’m not alone in this. The post that got my all-time most hits was “Philosophy Shifts in Heart of Thorns, And Why They’re Wrong” from January of 2016. It got over six times as many hits as its followup, “Things Heart of Thorns Is Doing Right.” That should tell me something about how negativity sells, but I don’t want to be that kind of blogger. To be fair, the “Why They’re Wrong” post was featured as a headline on Massively Overpowered‘s Global Chat column before the “Doing Right” part was posted. Also, thanks for the signal boosts over the years, MOP! You definitely get more eyes on my site than anything else. After Guild Wars 2, my Lord of the Rings Online posts seem to be most popular. I try not to be too metric-driven, because, again, this blog is for fun, but it’s interesting to look at from time to time.

In closing, thank you to everyone who reads my blog. There aren’t thousands or even hundreds of you, but thanks to those who do. Thank you to everyone who leaves a comment. It means a lot to me, even if I’m bad at responding. Thanks to my fellow bloggers for giving me things to read and think about. Thanks to the people who run projects like Newbie Blogger Initiative that gave me the push to start blogging again five years ago and Blaugust that, while I don’t really participate, gives me a lot of posts to read and encouragement to keep going.
Blogging may be considered a “dead” medium, quickly being replaced by podcasts and YouTube and Twitch, but I’m glad that there are still those of us who prefer it, and a community of people who want to nurture it. I don’t know if I’ll still be blogging in another five years, but I really didn’t know I’d be blogging this long.

Is World of Warcraft Worth Starting In 2018?

I’ve played just about every major MMO you can name, but I’ve never seriously played World of Warcraft. While I’ve watched it from the outside for years, the extent of my first hand experience is that I did the free trial for a couple of nights when one of my friends was thinking of going back, but he didn’t end up sticking around and neither did I. Now several of my other friends have jumped on the Battle for Azeroth bandwagon, and I’m starting to toy with the idea again.

Part of my hesitation is that I also recently went back to Old School RuneScape. It’s pretty ironic, because that was the MMO that we all used to play together, and one by one they all left me to play WoW, while I stayed behind on (the much cheaper) RuneScape. I’m really enjoying my time in RuneScape, but as I walk around, I can’t help but think about how awful this game would be for a newcomer. There are so many archaic systems that just aren’t well thought out or are intentionally designed to slow down progress or are just plain hard to understand, I can’t imagine playing this for more than a few hours before giving up, logging out, and never coming back. I enjoy this game more because of nostalgia, and less for the game itself. (To be completely fair to RuneScape, there are some really great things to do buried in there, but there’s a crap ton of grinding before you get to that, and past that is basically just more grinding)
How does all of this relate to WoW? I’m wondering how much my friends who make their periodical return to Azeroth are also riding on nostalgia, and how much the game experience really is superior. I know RuneScape and WoW are two very different games, but the juxtaposition of my friends’ nostalgia and my own is difficult to ignore.

My other concern is that I’m already so far behind, will I catch up and be able to play with them by the time they get bored and move on to something else? Because if I’m not going to play with them, I might as well keep playing other games that I know I’ll like. 120 is a lot of levels, and they actually somewhat know what they’re doing and where they’re going. I guess I could buy a booster, but that’s more money to spend. Maybe the new and controversial level scaling would make playing with them actually viable? I’ll have to look into that.

Finally, I’ve already touched on this, but is the game really worth subscribing to? They’ve gotten rid of the initial box fee, so there’s that barrier gone (not that it was much of a barrier anyway; I used to see it go on sale all the time for less than the cost of the first month sub it came with). I’ve heard the argument that, if it’s got so many players and it’s basically the only game to still have a mandatory sub then it must be worth it, but personally I’ve always thought that WoW has survived the way it has because of pure momentum. It was in the right place at the right time; it took the EverQuest model and made it more accessible and polished, and it got tons of players who never quite went away. But hey, I haven’t played it extensively, so what do I know.

So I’m throwing the question out to the Internets: Is it worth my time to start World of Warcraft as a brand new player in 2018?

MMO Living Conditions, Ranked Worst To Best

A while back, my wife and I got into this anime called Log Horizon that involves thousands players getting trapped in an MMO world. Not in a virtual reality way, but actually physically there, having to work out how to navigate the intricacies and politics of a world where former players are apparently immortal. Since then, we’ve often joked about what it would be like to wake up one day in the various games that we play. Here are a few of the games that I play or have played over the years, ranked based on how much I would or would not want to live in them.

Tamriel (Elder Scrolls Online)
This game has finally clicked with me and I’ve been enjoying playing it a lot lately, but there’s no way I’d want to live here. There’s a three-faction war on, yes, but that’s the least of our worries in this world. Crime is rampant, everyone is racist, and daedra are constantly causing terrible things to happen all over the place. At least two thirds of quest stories end depressingly, usually involving people ending up dead. And can you imagine living in Vulkhel Guard with dark anchors dropping from the sky every five minutes about a hundred yards from the city gate? Sure, adventurers love killing the daedra there for the experience, but what happens if they don’t show up one day?

The Star Wars Galaxy (Star Wars The Old Republic)
There are a lot of cool places to live in the Star Wars ‘verse, there’s a hyperdrive-equipped spaceship in every driveway, and the prospect of having force powers is tempting, but in the time of the old republic, you’ve got about a 50/50 shot of living in the not-so-bad Republic, or on a world dominated by the Sith, or, perhaps worse, some Hutt gang. And then there’s the whole thing with the Eternal Empire coming through and wiping everyone out with superweapons. Given the choice, I’ll pass on this one.

Gielinor (RuneScape)
Life in RuneScape is pretty simple. For the most part, catastrophically bad things tend to only happen when you go looking for trouble, and there’s no shortage of ways to earn gold for those willing to do a little menial labor. Even basic housing is pretty cheap! The only reason it doesn’t rank higher is because, quite frankly, it’s one of the least exciting MMOs I’ve ever played. It’s about as safe as real life because it feels a lot like real life, just with the occasional fireball thrown in.

Tyria (Guild Wars (2))
All things considered, life isn’t too bad in Tyria. Sure, there’s the threat of elder dragon attack, but cities (other than poor Lion’s Arch) seem relatively safe, and travel is fast and easy (and cheap!). Also, anything you need help with, from your livestock getting loose to a bandit raid to a mordrem invasion, you can pretty much just yell and adventurers will wander by and help you.

Nexus (WildStar)
Aside from the fact that this world is about to cease to exist, Nexus seems like a pretty cool place to live. Sure, there’s the constant threat of random faction violence, becoming a Strain mutant, and danger from all manor of weird alien life forms. I’m not saying it’s safer than any of the other worlds on this list. But there are hoverboards. And space ships. And giant plots of land in the sky that you can get for free! What more could you ask for?

Middle-Earth (Lord of the Rings Online)
Middle-Earth has its fair share of places that would be terrible to live (forget orcs, I can think of way too many places infested by giant spiders), but for every one of those, there’s a place like the Shire, or Bree-town, or Rivendell (which, while beautiful, is infested by elves, who are almost as bad as the spiders). Pretty much everywhere is beautiful, apart from Mordor and Angmar and maybe a few other places, and most of the free peoples are pretty friendly and helpful.

WildStar and the Futility of Online Gaming

Well, it’s not a surprise. I honestly expected it a long time ago. But there it is. WildStar is officially sunsetting. I adored this game. I loved the colorfulness, the characters, the story, the world, the freedom of movement, the classes. It had the best housing. It had the amazing combat. It had an incredible soundtrack. It had the my favorite mounts (I’ll miss you most of all, DeLorean hoverboard). But the game launched far too focused on ultra hardcore endgame raiding, and, while it had so much else going for it, it couldn’t turn the Titanic away from that iceberg. I think they tried, but the damage was done, both because they had built a team of people who didn’t know how to do anything else, and because their public perception was irreparably damaged. I want so badly for this game to get saved and rebooted by a different team, but I know it’s not going to happen.

At least we saw this one coming a little more than Marvel Heroes. But losing the two of them within a year of each other has had me thinking a lot of depressing, “all is vanity” type thoughts about playing MMOs.
XKCD 1136
All MMOs will shut down. It’s hard to imagine popular games like Elder Scrolls Online or the unstoppable juggernaut that is World of Warcraft suffering the same fate as WildStar, but realistically, this will happen sooner or later. It’s ironic, because one of the reasons why I like MMOs is because I feel like my achievements mean something. In a normal RPG, I get to the end and that’s it. Your character lives happily ever after and has no more adventures for the rest of their days (unless they show up in a sequel having inexplicably leveled back down to 1 from level atrophy or something). In an MMO, my character lives on indefinitely and continues doing bigger and better things. Until the game goes dark. I can always dust off the SNES and go for a Hyrule nostalgia tour around Zelda: Link to the Past (or, better yet, play it in one of the numerous more modern formats it has been released on), but how many 27-year-old MMOs will we be able to pull off the shelf and play again? The answer is we don’t know yet because the genre isn’t that old, but I doubt it will be many. How many more decades can Ultima Online have left in it? Or Everquest? Or Eve? In some ways, as long as people keep showing up with money, you might as well continue development, or at least keep the servers on, but on the other hand, from a business standpoint, it’s an opportunity cost. If they’re investing X dollars over here and getting a 10% return and X dollars over there and getting a 200% return, they’re both making money, but which one do you think they’re going to invest more in? That’s what happened to City of Heroes (which, ironically, many people believe was killed to fund WildStar). Sooner or later it’s going to happen to every online game.

But, you know what? Gaming ultimately isn’t about permanence or achievement for me. It’s about having fun. I had a ton of fun in WildStar, throwing psi-blades at alien robots, stealthing around and slicing up strain-infected wildlife with Wolverine claws, and putting on laser light shows that heal my friends. I met some cool people, none of whom I talk to anymore, sure, but I still remember their names and their characters and their voices. I built cool houses (nowhere near as cool as some people’s, but I enjoyed them). I spent a lot of time zooming around Nexus on hoverboards just for the fun of it (have I mentioned how much I love hoverboards?). I took a lot of screenshots.
I got a lot of memories out of it.
So in a way, even when they shut down, MMOs are still permanent in the ways that matter.